Ian Smith, Prime Minister Rhodesia 1964-1979

In September 2002 I had a very interesting experience. At the time Rachel and I were living in Harare and were owners of a small guest house in Avondale. On one particular evening I fell into conversation over a few beers with a guest by the name of Anthony Oberdorfer. The discussion quickly turned to the subject of Rhodesia, and then on to Ian Smith, who at that time was commenting fairly frequently to the press over the matter of the ongoing farm invasions. His appearance had prompted renewed murmurs from central government that he deserved to be tried as a war criminal, to which Smith had memorably replied that should he stand in the upcoming general election the odds would be fair that he would win.

It was a typically inflammatory comment,  but surprisingly Smith was indeed experiencing a renewed popularity among blacks. I say renewed because he was never universally vilified by blacks as popular mythology suggests, and since much of what he had warned would come to pass as a consequence of Independence had come to pass, his voice was heard generally with a little more respect than hitherto. Many older blacks reflected that things had been better under Smith. I happened to be in the arrivals hall at Harare International Airport one evening when Smith arrived on the BA flight from London. As he appeared with his luggage trolley, unaccompanied and unannounced, he was greeted by a number of blacks with due respect and nothing resembling hostility at all.


Anyway, it so happened that my companion at the bar that night announced that he wanted to meet Smith, and moreover, that he knew where he lived. At first I was a little circumspect, but after some persuasion I agreed to accompany Anthony to see if we could find the ex-Prime Minister. Accordingly, a couple of days later, and completely unannounced, we drove to Belgravia, that lovely suburb of 1920s and 1930s colonial architecture. There, along a typical avenue  of weeping jacarandas, completely unprotected by either a fence or a wall, we found the home of Ian Smith. We parked on the street outside, walked up a gravel driveway and knocked on the door. Shortly thereafter the door opened and before us appeared an elderly man, not particularly tall, a little unkempt, and dressed in a cardigan and slippers. He was nonetheless instantly recognisable. This was Ian Smith, the warrior of Rhodesia, the enfant terrible of the British family of statesmen and one of the most loved and vilified characters in the whole southern African political drama.

Seeing him standing there took me completely by surprise. I had not known exactly what to expect, but certainly I did not expect to walk in off the street, to knock on a door and be invited in. No fence, no Durawall, no razor wire, nothing. We simply introduced ourself before stepping into a homely and scrupulously clean hallway. There we shook hands with both Smith and an elderly and extremely personable black house servant who arrived in from the kitchen. Orders for tea were taken – without the option of coffee – after which we repaired to the living room were Smith offered us a seat. Dominating the main fire place wall was was a large TV screen tuned to the Proteas batting against England at  Lords, behind which hung an equally large and impressive presentation oil painting depicting a WWII Spitfire in flight.  Besides that the room was nothing more than the humble parlour of a respectable middle class widower.

Our host had in the meanwhile settled back into the comfortable recliner from which we had obviously roused him. He put his feet up on the pouf, knitted his fingers over his belly, accepted an elderly tabby cat on his lap, and with one eye on the television sat back with a smile to enjoy a fresh and unexpected encounter. Smith was entirely at ease, completely unsuspicious and manifestly in fear neither of assassination nor arrest. Its hard to imagine Robert Mugabe ever being able to do that.

For anyone reading this who does not know who Ian Smith was, Smith was to the southern African region what Geronimo was to Arizona, what Asterix was to the Gauls or what Arthur Scargill was to the British unions. He was a charismatic but divisive and controversial statesman who dedicated his life to the preservation of a noble but dying institution.  Smith was  the last white Prime Minister of Rhodesia, itself the last substantive self governing colony of the British Empire. If a man is the product of his beliefs, then Ian Smith, until the day he died, was a man among men. When judged against his successors, all by then in their second decade of power, and by then so morally obese and so utterly corrupt that they had become unrecognisable as revolutionaries, Smith was a relative pauper. His political vision might have been questionable, and his pursuit of a utopian solution to the southern African race dilemma quixotic at the very least, but he was never a wealthy man. It can never be argued, therefore, that he was corrupt. He was motivated instead by a belief system, and a set of personal convictions so profound that, even though they were obviously flawed, they were sufficiently buoyant to sustain him through a long and turbulent political career of rebellion.


The history of Rhodesia has been comprehensively documented over the years, most recently in my own book Rhodesia, Last Outpost of the British Empire, and so I do not intent to dwell in much detail on it here. In short, though, Rhodesia was part of the great imperial vision of Cecil John Rhodes, the great English capitalist and a man whose imprint on Southern Africa, and indeed on the entire empire, was very deep indeed. The colony was settled as a de facto commercial venture, and thus governed both by a board of directors based in London and a local administration fashioned more or less along standard British lines. The colony existed from 1890 until 1965, when, after a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, it became a rebel republic. This state of affairs endured for a further 15-years until independence in 1980.

Ian Smith was born in Rhodesia. His father, Jock Smith, arrived in the colony in 1898 along with a wave of similar immigrants following the successful occupation of  Mashonaland and the subsequent seizure of Matabeleland. Jock Smith established himself  in the small mining settlement of Seluke just outside Gwelo and married the daughter of a local miner with whom he had three children, Phyllis, Joan and Ian.

The family enjoyed the modest prosperity of a successful pioneer family in Rhodesia. Smith attended Chaplin School in Gwelo where he displayed the academic attributes of a stalwart and dedicated if not particularly gifted Rhodesian youth. On the sports field, however, his achievements were more notable. He progressed through the Rhodesian school system without a blemish on his record, after which he entered Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 1938 where he began reading for a Bachelor of Commerce.

His academic career was interrupted by WWII. The history of white Rhodesian war service is an interesting one. The rigid immigration standards set by Cecil John Rhodes, and continued by his successors, had tended since the occupation to ensure a very high calibre of white settler. This, coupled with the man-management experience that white youth in Rhodesia gained through the control of large labour forces, tended to produce the kind of leadership material that the British Army sought for its many Imperial Regiments. These spanned the spectrum of the entire British Empire, from Nepalese Ghurkas to Indians, from Canadians to Australians. Rhodesian men were also disproportionately represented in such eccentric and individualistic units as the Long Range Desert Group, the newly minted Special Air Services and many other special force contingents of the British Armed Services.

Another area where Rhodesians, and indeed Rhodesia itself, played a significant role in the wider war effort, was in the Air Services. Rhodesia was pivotal to the Empire Air Training programme, and Rhodesian pilots were to be found in a number of dedicated fighter and bomber squadrons serving across Africa, Asia and Europe, and distinguishing themselves with such legendary names as Hardwicke Holderness, Jack Malloch, Robin Watson and of course Ian Smith himself.

Smith’s service was primarily focused in North Africa and Italy during the first phase of the invasion of Europe. He was severely injured during an abortive take-off from an airfield in Cairo. This resulted in the signature facial scarring that permanently stamped the mark of imperial loyalty on the countenance of this most British of subjects. He then served with the legendary RAF 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron, based in Corsica, and operating in support of land forces then inching up the boot of Italy. During an attack on a railway facility in the Po Valley, Smith’s spitfire was brought down by German anti-aircraft fire. Parachuting to safety behind German lines, Smith was taken in by the local Italian partisans who helped him return to the safety of Allied lines.

After the War Smith completed his studies at Rhodes University. He was awarded his degree before returning to Selukwe and settling into life as a farmer and landowner on a modest property that, in due course, was expanded to an estate of some 21,000 acres.


Meanwhile, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s, Southern Rhodesia found herself at a crossroads. A long road travelled towards some sort of political accommodation between black and white had come to nothing. In the aftermath of WWI the Imperial Government, with rare foresight, had recognised the inevitability of the black majority one day assuming power in British Africa, and began warning the various settler communities that their long term survival in Africa depended on some sort of functional political relationship with the black majority.

During the 1930s this had been seen as such a distant eventuality that no serious policy on the matter had ever  been debated. By then, however, a handful of university educated blacks were emerging from the disarray of the occupation and were beginning to reform the institutions of black social and political life. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that this would have been the optimum moment to absorb some these men into the lower strata of government and local administration, with a view later to introducing them to the finer advantages of a truly representative parliamentary democracy, and doing so with genuine good will and optimism.

This, of course, did not happen, and by the 1940s urban living and working conditions in a rapidly industrialising society had begun to breed underground political organisation and a deepening sense of anger. In response to this the wholly white administration began to push back with increasingly repressive legislation and a more robust enforcement of public order.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s it was too late to begin any meaningful process of assimilation, even if it had ever been seriously considered. The black political establishment was by then highly organised and led from the front by an energised and powerful elite. The organisations that these nationalist pioneers founded were underwritten, not by appeals for improvements within the system, but a demand majority rule immediately.

In the face of growing black resistance, the white administration, then under the leadership of one of the great Rhodesian statesmen, Sir Godfrey Huggins, sought alternative strategies. One of these was the amalgamation of the three allied British territories of Central Africa: Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The British Government, for obvious reasons, would not countenance an absolute integration of the three territories, but permitted instead a more loosely aligned federation to be formed, which opened its doors for business as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953. The institution suffered an acrimonious birth that would lead to a premature death just a decade later. In the interim Southern Rhodesia transitioned from a relatively peaceful colonial backwater to a nation at war with itself.


Smith, who had prior to this been a young and active Member of Parliament for his home constituency of Selukwe, became  more actively involved in the politics of the Federation, rising to the position of Chief Whip for the governing United Federal Party, led at that time by Federal Prime Minister Sir Roy Welensky.

Massive black resistance eventually brought the Federation down. Highly visible within the political process that brought this about was a willingness, indeed almost a desperation, on the part of a rapidly weakening British political establishment to discard the most vociferous of the African colonies. So far Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and a handful of other British African territories had gone the way of independence, and, sensing the blood of the Empire in the water, black nationalists continent wide were seething in fury, and tearing to shreds what little remained of the British Empire.

Smith could see this happening, and so could a handful of others. As the Federation collapsed Nyasaland fell with it, quickly followed by Northern Rhodesia, emerging as respectively Malawi and Zambia. If Southern Rhodesia was to be saved from the same fate and kept firmly in white hands, both prompt and radical action would need to be taken.

It was unfortunate perhaps that almost at this exact moment one of the signature tragedies of black Africa took place, one that ramificates to this day to the very heart of western perceptions of Africa. This was the 1960 Congo Crisis. While I do not intend to deal with the facts of the Crisis here, I will say that it transpired largely because the Belgians granted independence to the territory with a minimum of preparation, in effect handing it over to the lower strata of the army and civil services. The result was a very rapid descent into anarchy, with all the attendant images of blacks running amok and venting their latent savagery and greed on the remaining whites, on each other and on the economic and industrial infrastructure of the colony.

As white Congolese refugees flooded into the Federation, the settler community of Southern Rhodesia swore that such a thing would never be allowed to happen there. If this was what independent blacks could do in a few short months to a well ordered, well governed and profitable colony such as the Congo, what could they do to Rhodesia?

At the vanguard of a swing to the right in white Rhodesia was Ian Smith, by then a 41-year old farmer/politician, supported by his friend and confederate Clifford Dupont. Following these two were many others among the young business, social and political elite of white Rhodesia, and among these was a charismatic and politically ambivalent Marandellas tobacco farmer by the name of Winston Field. Field was chosen as the leader of the newly formed Rhodesian Front Party. The RF was a right-wing alliance of concerned whites anxious to repair the political drift of the Southern Rhodesian territorial government. Edgar Whitehead, incumbent Prime Minister at the time, was seen to be dangerously veering toward the rocks of irreversible political accommodation with the blacks. The Rhodesia Front successfully tapped into a groundswell of white Rhodesian anxiety which translated in 1964 into a respectable election victory  for the party and the territorial premiership for Winston Field.


My theory on what followed is that Rhodesian policy towards the Imperial Government was revised under the new RF government into a simple policy of picking a fight with the British in order to bring matters to a head. The matter in question was independence for Rhodesia under minority government. Many were the precedents that justified this – Britain had gushed with gratitude during the War as colonies like Rhodesia rushed to her aid, and promised, perhaps intemperately, that dominion status for Rhodesia would be the reward. And indeed the preamble to the Federal constitution had offered Rhodesia hope that she would enjoy a transition to the Commonwealth as a full member should the Federation collapse. If the two territories of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia were enjoying this transition, albeit under majority rule, why should Southern Rhodesia not be so honoured herself?

Why indeed. By then, 20-years after the end of WWII, an utterly changed global political dynamic made any kind of expectation on the part of Rhodesian whites for independence under its racially restrictive constitution unimaginable. But the British had promised, and indeed, white Rhodesians were British kith and kin!

This, principal, for better or for worse, would remain the pivot of the crisis for the next 15 years. Smith would maintain that the British owed white Rhodesia more, and the British, although in full agreement, would insist that white Rhodesia was an anachronism, and as tragic as it might be for the dignity of the flailing British Empire, white dominance of the region had become politically impossible and morally indefensible. White Rhodesia might lament loud and shrill that the utter ruination of the colony would immediately attend a handover to blacks, but this, in the grand scheme of things, carried absolutely no weight whatsoever.

Winston Field did not agree with, nor support any open breach with the British. As a consequence his premiership was brief. Behind him, younger, leaner, angrier and more determined, was Ian Smith. Behind Smith was the weight of a party caucus rapidly gaining muscle, and behind that an electorate desperate for strong and directed leadership with the face of an impending crisis.

Smith was soon anointed. He led the country to the ballot and was rewarded with a clean sweep. He then girded his loins to do battle with the British, championed then by a weak and rather mendacious Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Throughout 1965 Smith and Wilson grappled, alternately in London and Salisbury, breeding as they did a tremendous mutual antipathy, and ultimately separating with absolutely nothing achieved. After a valedictory firing of abusive verbal salvoes, Smith scuttled his own ship, fortified the beaches and declared Rhodesia independent on November 11 1965 in a Unilateral Declaration.

This was an extremely courageous act, but how intelligent was it? Smith could obviously not have seen then how this simple act of defiance would play out for himself and for the rebel republic of Rhodesia, and if he had, would he have thought again? Was Smith possibly guilty of a complete misreading of current global real politik by the assumption that the British were able to wield anything like the kind of power on the world stage to grant minority independence to Rhodesia?

Possibly he felt that brinkmanship was all that remained once fair and honest means had been exhausted. Perhaps he also felt that recognition from South Africa and Portugal, and perhaps even the United States, France, Greece and a handful of others, would prompt a general recognition. Perhaps he even believed that world would recognise what he himself could so clearly see, that Rhodesia, indeed Zimbabwe, would be utterly destroyed by majority rule. There would be no place in the country for whites in the long run, and without whites Rhodesia would be unrecognisable. I quote Smith on his first speech after UDI:

We Rhodesians have rejected the doctrinaire philosophy of appeasement and surrender. The decision which we have taken today is a refusal by Rhodesians to sell their birthright. And, even if we were to surrender, does anyone believe that Rhodesia would be the last target of the Communists in the Afro-Asian bloc? We have struck a blow for the preservation of justice, civilisation and Christianity; and in the spirit of this belief we have this day assumed our sovereign independence. God bless you all.

Birthright? Sovereign independence? These are odd choices of words in an environment where relatively few whites could claim any birthright at all, and even fewer a paternal birthright. A majority of the Rhodesian cabinet that had opted for UDI had not even been born in the territory. Smith himself was among very few who had. So, appealing to the innate patriotism of a largely expatriate population stretches the imagination more than a little.

However, what I refuse to accept is that Smith was acting from any innate sense of racism, or indeed any other ignoble motivation. His belief that the blacks simply lacked the capacity to govern was genuine. Inherent in this belief, a belief that echoed his predecessors all the way back to Cecil John Rhodes, was that the blacks were better off under white rule, and moreover, he and many others genuinely believed that most blacks agreed.


UDI was followed by a long and painful process during which, each in their own way, the British and Rhodesian Prime Ministers tried to repair the damage and find a way out of the impasse. No international recognition had been forthcoming, and indeed comprehensive international sanctions were then in place, driven by the unutterable outrage of the Afro/Asian Bloc of the UN and the newly formed Organisation of African Unity. The negotiation process continued in many forms, utilizing many institutions and personalities, and always in one way or another tutored by an influential if not always welcome South African contribution, but ultimately to no avail.

As this process of international diplomacy played out, at home, nationalist inspired insecurity increased. This prompted a more robust security response that resulted in the banning and imprisonment of a majority of the most influential nationalist leaders, which in turn tipped the country more steeply towards an inevitable war.

I often wonder if Smith predicted all this, or even sensed that it was possible. It is difficult to see, with the benefit of hindsight, how war could have been avoided, but perhaps Smith  had so configured his world view on current, and indeed even past realities, that he refused or was unable to acknowledge the pace and direction of global change. Rhodesian intelligence supremo ken Flower, in his personal memoir of the period, Serving Secretly, consistently accused Smith of near sightedness, and sometimes determined blindness, in his reading of contemporary political landscape.

The South African attitude of appeasement, or Detente, that attended the collapse of Portuguese rule in Mozambique, and the emergence north of the Zambezi of the black nation states of Africa, took Smith completely by surprise. His assumption, after the April 1974 Coup in Lisbon which set in motion the handover of Mozambique, was that South African support for Rhodesia would massively increase as a means of maintaining a buffer against the steady advance of Liberation. He was dismayed to instead discover that South African Prime Minister John Vorster appeared perfectly willing to sacrifice Rhodesia in exchange for the goodwill of the rest of Africa, as ridiculous, again, as this policy might seem with the benefit of hindsight.

By the mid-1970s; at the end of a long road littered with the debris of failed negotiations; with a full scale civil war on the nations doorstep; and Portuguese Mozambique, one of the oldest imperial presences in Africa, swept off the face of the map, it would not doubt have begun to dawn on Smith, and white Rhodesia in general, that the situation was dire. Unrecognised, increasingly insecure, heavily sanctioned, surrounded and alone, the situation was indeed critical. Many must have been the  dark moments that Smith quietly regretted UDI. Doubtless he would also at that point have reflected back on the many political offers made by the British and others that now seemed so much better than what was currently on the table. This fact was reinforced in 1977 during a flying visit to Salisbury by South African Foreign Affairs Minister Pik Botha, who told Smith to his face that time had run out for the establishment of any sort of peaceful solution to the crisis. Now there would be losers, and Smith need not have looked too far to determine who the South Africans thought likely to be the main loser.


The War thereafter entered a depressing phase. Prognostications by many such as Ken Flower that the war was ultimately unwinnable gradually began to gather traction. This helped fuel a desperation on the part of the Government to find some sort of a workable a political solution. The tide of white immigration into Rhodesia had turned at precisely the same time  as the security demands of the War were peaking. The Security Forces could no longer cope. The War was  increasingly taken across the border into Mozambique and Zambia while  at home increasing numbers of blacks were being inducted into the regular and territorial forces to try and stem the manpower haemorrhage. Life on any level in Rhodesia had become extremely dangerous. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of young black men and women were dying in the ranks of the nationalist armies as wave after wave of brilliant but vicious Rhodesian military assaults were unleashed against them. Young Rhodesian men were also dying, many of them, as well as a growing list of civilian casualties.

The shooting down of the two Air Rhodesia Viscounts in 1977, the Hunyani and Umniati, was a lower-water mark for Rhodesian morale. The complete lack of international sympathy that attended both tragedies convinced white Rhodesians that they truly were alone. Smith even more so, as he visibly aged and began to stoop under the tremendous weight of what he had done. His efforts to achieve an internal settlement with what were perceived as moderate black nationalists represented a desperation indicative of the degree crisis that he faced.

Neither the ineffectual Bishop Abel Muzorewa, leader of the UANC, nor the washed up and demoralised Ndabaningi Sithole, leader of a branch of ZANU, commanded any mass following.  These men, however, were the moderates in whom Smith placed his, and the hope of all white Rhodesians. When in April 1979 Muzorewa was sworn in as Prime Minister of the awkwardly named Zimbabwe/Rhodesia,  he accepted the office under the protection of the Rhodesian Army. He also presided over a largely unchanged administration and judiciary, severely limited in his powers, and tutored by Smith himself who remained very much at the helm of national affairs.

The experiment of Zimbabwe Rhodesia failed, as indeed it had to, and the matter of searching for a political accommodation continued.


The next step was the Lancaster House Conference that concluded in December 1979 in the Lancaster House Agreement. This came into being thanks to two factors. One was the new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, grasping the fact that the white population of Rhodesia, numbering no more than an anaemic London borough, could not hold the whole of Southern Africa to ransom as they searched for an impossible balance of handing government to the blacks but keeping power to themselves.  At the Commonwealth conference of that year, held in Lusaka, Thatcher made it plain that Zimbabwe/Rhodesia would not stand.

The second factor was the heavy cost of the War to both Mozambique and Zambia. Both governments hosted elements of the liberation movement, and each gave notice  to their proxies of the fact that neither country could sustain the cost of war with Rhodesia for much longer. The black nationalists were ordered to find a solution.

The Lancaster House Conference deserves a book of its own to illustrate the twisted, serpentine and often perplexing negotiations that played out over several months, culminating in the controversial agreement signed in December 1979.

Ian Smith was ostensibly not of significant importance during this procedure, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister  of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia was Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Smith, however, felt that he had retained a substantive lever by the fact that he could veto any agreement that he did not countenance in the Zimbabwe/Rhodesian Parliament. Here we reach an odd juncture in the story, and one that, in Smith’s own memoir, The Great Betrayal, remained until his death a source of obvious bitterness and anger.

The confidence Smith had that he was still largely in control of events was shattered by the arrival at the Conference of Chief Justice Hector MacDonald to brief the Muzorewa delegation on the true constitutional position. Britain did not recognise the Muzorewa government or the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Constitution, which meant that the matter would be debated by the House of Commons, and would never feature on the agenda of any parliamentary sittings in Salisbury.

Thus Ian Smith slipped off the stage, replaced by an ineffectual Prime Minister Muzorewa who was buffeted by the unkind winds of British trench diplomacy. He was no match either for Robert Mugabe or Lord Peter Carrington. The white man at the fore of the regime then became General Peter Walls, who received, and believed, unwritten assurances from Lord Carrington that recourse to Downing Street would remain open in the instance of Patriotic Front flouting of the ceasefire and the rules of electoral campaigning, and that Mugabe would not be allowed to win, and that if he did, he would not be allowed to rule.

In the event, however, Mugabe and the Patriotic Front did what they pleased and suffered no sanction. Elaborate plans within the disintegrating Rhodesian Security Forces to wrest back control of country came to nothing, and Rhodesia drifted off into the mists of British Imperial History at midnight on April 18 1980.

Through a series of permutations, Ian Smith remained at the head of the white caucus until that caucus itself disappeared. He then remained as a prosperous white farmer until that institution disappeared. Thereafter he rose briefly in the early 2000s as an advocate for the fair treatment of Zimbabwe’s white farmers, and in order to say, to the utter fury of Robert Mugabe and his bloodstained clique, that ‘I told you so!’ And indeed he had, and he had been right.

Ian Smith died with at least that satisfaction. How much of a role he played in the eventual demise of Zimbabwe is open to debate, but by rendering the political waters in Rhodesia as hostile as they were for black advancement, he certainly laid the groundwork for the rise of men like Mugabe. Had the whites allowed authentic space for the development of moderate black political representation, no doubt Robert Mugabe would have remained an anonymous school teacher and all would have been well…perhaps.


It was fascinating to spent a couple of hours in the company of this man. We drank a few cups of tea, chatted about the cricket, touched very briefly on his meetings with Kissinger and others, before bidding pleasant farewell to a pleasant man in a most pleasant home in Harare.

Ian Smith died on November 20 2007 at the age of 88.